SOM Bets on Los Angeles Resurgence

SOM Bets on Los Angeles Resurgence

In the midst of the real estate meltdown of the mid-90s, SOM packed up its bags and closed its Los Angeles office, consolidating its west coast operations in San Francisco. Now the firm is finally coming back.

In February the firm will open a Los Angeles studio led by three former AECOM architects: Michael Mann, Paul Danna, and Jose Palacios. The three, who will all carry the title “Practice Leader,” had each worked at SOM prior to joining AECOM. They had been discussing the idea with SOM leaders since the summer, they said.

Danna, Mann and Palacio listed several reasons for returning to SOM, including, said Danna, “the consistent regard for excellence and craft and technology and design.”

“It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up,” said Mann.

The studio will open with between ten and forty people. While it will start in a small interim space it will eventually be set in a downtown location with a “strong street presence,” said SOM Managing Partner Gene Schnair.

The return to LA, pointed out Schnair and Hartman, is a result of several factors, including LA’s market size, its cultural influence, its wealth of architectural talent, its diversity of built fabric, and a number of commissions that the firm has recently begun in the area. Those projects include a new medical education building at UCLA, the San Joaquin student housing complex at UCSB, and the new superior courthouse in San Diego.

“We’ve become a much more diverse practice since we left Los Angeles,” said Hartman, who noted that the firm was heavily invested in commercial buildings during its first stint in the city. “Los Angeles represents that diversity.”

The office will look at opportunities in Latin America and Asia, said Schnair and Hartman, but “LA and southern California will be the first order of focus.”

"If you’re going to practice architecture as a high design firm you need to be in New York and LA," added Mann.

And despite the economic downturn the firm is optimistic, which seems to be a good sign for the recovery in LA.

“One has to have a strong will and a strong stomach to be able to navigate the economic uncertainties,” said Schnair. “More recently it became apparent there was a lot of energy down in LA and it was time to take the next step.”